If you love a good, traditional play built in three acts and made up of solid, orthodox performances, then you should probably stop reading now. Same if you are a real worshiper of Alfred Hitchcock. If you are looking for a zany romp of an evening in which pretty much every rule and convention of theater is broken and basically every production Hitchcock ever did gets skewered, then I have the perfect play for you. I’m talking about John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, as performed by The Actors Guild of Parkersburg. It opened on Friday, January 15 and runs until January 24. Let me say from the outset that I recommend it highly with only the most minor of reservations.
First, a little bit about the plot, though, to be honest, the story takes a serious backseat in this production. The real entertainment is the unrestrained performances of the four actors, two of whom play dozens of parts each. But the story centers around Richard Hannay (portrayed brilliantly by Eli Tracewell), a self-described British layabout who is bored with his meaningless life and decides one night to break the tedium by attending the theater. In true Hitchcockian fashion, there’s intrigue afoot, as witnessed by the gunshot that rings out in the middle of the show. In the ensuing confusion, Hannay encounters Annabella Schmidt (one of three parts played by Mary Snapp and is the part in which Snapp, in my opinion, does her best work) a Russian(?) spy, who tells Hannay she needs his help to stop an evil plot to smuggle something called The 39 Steps (cue comically dramatic music) out of the country. But before he can learn anything more, Annabella is murdered and Hannay is the prime suspect. Using a few vague clues left behind by the now deceased femme fatale, Hannay is on the run, trying to clear his name while simultaneously stop a nefarious plot about which he knows almost nothing. Along the way, he encounters more daffy characters than could possibly be counted (the program claimed to have 150 roles played by 4 actors, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that is literally true), most played by two of the most energetic, rubber-faced thespians I’ve seen in a long time, Mitch Mazaher and R. J. Lowe. These two play constables and innkeepers and spies and train passengers—I could go on forever. And they are remarkable.
By far the best scene is the inspiringly staged train chase. The whole thing is done with nothing more than four steamer trunks, which sometimes double as seats and other times fill in for the roof of the train cars. At one point early in the scene, the two clowns (Mazaher and Lowe) are alternating in dizzying fashion between three roles each. But the centerpiece of the scene is the chase, in which two bumbling Bobbies are pursuing Hannay. It starts with Hannay climbing out the window and onto the roof of the train car. How they staged this simply describes full description, but suffice it to say that it is both wonderfully creative and also gut-achingly hilarious. The rest of the audience and I laughed until we were out of breath.
Another top-notch scene that is praiseworthy in its unique creativity is the chase scene that takes place using shadows against a huge sheet suspended from the ceiling. In keeping with the tone of the play, it starts out semi-serious with a re-enactment from the gripping airplane scene from North by Northwest, but ends with a goofy homage to King Kong. Again, it is laugh out loud funny.
That’s not to say the production is completely without flaws. The last act felt like it really lost some steam. Speaking of steam—be careful of sitting too close. They’re quite enamored of the fog machine and, to be honest, the fumes from it made me a little queasy. The scenes between Hannay and his eventual love interest Pamela (played again by Snapp, in the weakest of her three roles) slowed the show down for me. When she overhears the bad guys and comes back to confess that she finally realizes that he’s been telling the truth all along, I really got the impression that they were struggling at times to remember their lines. But the slow last act isn’t limited to these two. All four actors just seemed to have difficulty keeping up the frenetic pace required by the show. But who can blame them when the show goes in so many directions? And that’s not a criticism—the wild plot twists and constant unexpected gags are what makes the show so fun. And, to be fair, this was opening night. As someone who’s been in a lot of plays in my life, I can tell you that it often takes a performance or two before you get your feet fully under you.
And, as is true with all shows of this type, some bits worked better than others. Part of the great fun for me was the actors constantly breaking the fourth wall and acknowledging the fact that this is, indeed, a play. At one point, they actually break out a program. But a few of the gags simply don’t work. One in particular, involving a fish, is both gross and puzzling. But these are miniscule quibbles in a sea of otherwise highly positive impressions I took from the show.
So if you’re looking for something that’s part Hitchcock, part Monty Python, part Airplane, part Saturday Night Live, part Benny Hill, and even a little bit Scooby Doo, then you need to see this show. But take three pieces of advice. First, get some rest before you go. It’s a physically taxing show for the audience too. Second, take a friend with similar tastes with whom to enjoy it. I was alone and I think I didn’t fully experience it. Finally, leave your children at home. Despite the fact that the publicity says it for people 9 to 99, it gets a little bawdy at times, though most of the adult gags would probably be lost on younger kids.
Don’t wait—get your ticket for this show as soon as possible. It is a wild, daffy, dizzying, antic tour de force that will surely go down as one of the Guild’s most beloved productions. Bravo, Actors Guild of Parkersburg, bravo!